The protests triggered by Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police in mid-September have long surpassed the grievances that sparked them to articulate broader demands for political and social change. Mostly led by young people, protests have offered the most sustained challenge ever faced by Iran’s theocratic regime. The authorities have responded accordingly, escalating repression, manipulating the criminal justice system and using the death penalty to punish protesters and try to deter others. At a time when the outcome of the contest is far from certain, concerted international action could tip the scales.

In early December significant numbers of women could be seen on Iranian streets without their hijabs for the first time in decades. It wasn’t that Iran’s theocratic authorities had changed their mind about the strict dress code imposed on women – they just had bigger problems. Applying the mandatory hijab, which three months before Mahsa Amini had lost her life over, has become secondary to trying to stop protests now openly demanding the end of the theocratic regime.

Escalating protest demands have been met with increasing repression. Repression is always the state’s response, but now it’s reached another level, corresponding with the unprecedented scale, breadth and duration of protests.

Anti-regime protests

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, following her arrest for breaching hijab rules, sparked the biggest challenge Iran’s regime has ever faced.

Protests aren’t new in Iran: over its 43 years, the Islamic republic has faced repeated, often localised resistance – and has always been able to crush it. But in response to repression, the current protest wave has only grown stronger. Initially focused on the rules constraining women’s freedoms, the protests mushroomed to articulate broader grievances and demands for fundamental political and social change.

Voices from the frontline

Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a British-Australian women’s rights advocate and academic specialising in Islamic studies and author of the autobiographical book The Uncaged Sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison.


In contrast to previous outbreaks of protest and civil unrest in Iran, from the very first day the current protesters adopted slogans calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic regime. Their slogans include ‘Death to Khamenei’, the Supreme Leader, ‘Down with the dictator’ and ‘No to the Islamic Republic’.

While the trigger for the unrest was the senseless death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, the issue of forced hijab and the harassment of women by regime officials due to their clothing and behaviour has become a symbol of the protesters’ desire to remove this regime altogether. Protesters are demanding freedom, equality between women and men and an end to the tyranny imposed on them by Iran’s regime of ageing clerics.

The protests are happening countrywide and have involved Persian and ethnic-minority communities, irrespective of language, religion or class.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Kylie. Read the full interview here.

Within days protests spread to at least 15 cities, where they were held on streets, in universities and even in cemeteries. Funerals became protest hotspots as people mourned those killed in protests, triggering more repression, more killings and more funerals that turned into protest sites.

Young women taking to the streets in protest have increasingly been supported by male friends and colleagues, with universities at the forefront of the movement. Other groups, including workers and merchants, have also joined in, but the movement remains youthful. The average age of protesters dropped as rebellion spread to schools and increasing numbers of teenagers and children have taken to the streets. Parents, particularly mothers of protesters, have provided various forms of support.

Protests in Iran have consistently been echoed by protests led by the Iranian diaspora around the world. Numerous Iranian celebrities have used their platforms to further the cause of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. Those in Iran have been targeted for retaliation.

Escalating repression

When protests expanded across Iran, police deployment followed. Protesters were dispersed with teargas, water cannon and batons. But they kept coming back, and as demands escalated into calls for the downfall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the crackdown intensified too, with live ammunition and metal pellets fired at protesters and bystanders, including children.

Three months on, the Iranian regime has murdered as many as 700 protesters, including dozens of children, injured thousands and arrested around 30,000, with many facing criminal charges. These staggering numbers may be gross underestimates due to a news blackout.

To minimise protesters’ ability to communicate with each other and share information with the outside world, the authorities have repeatedly disrupted internet access. They’ve arrested prominent journalists, starting with Niloufar Hamedi, who reported from the hospital where Mahsa died and was accused of being a ‘foreign agent’. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 41 journalists were confirmed to have been detained by October.

The government fell back on a convenient target by trying to claim the protests were organised by Kurdish separatists, deploying special forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guard units in Kurdish areas. Not surprisingly, the worst levels of security force violence and the highest casualties have come in the Kurdish areas of western Iran.

A high proportion of those killed, arrested, criminalised and sentenced are young people. In a TV speech on 19 October, Khamenei called university students boycotting classes ‘enemies of the country’. By early December, close to 600 university students were known to have been arrested, with reports of many being subjected to torture, sexual abuse and denial of medical treatment.

Those using their platforms and followings to express dissent have been targeted, including artists and sports stars. Singer Shervin Hajipour, whose viral song Baraye (‘because of’) became the protesters’ anthem, was arrested on 29 September, a few days after he posted the song on Instagram.

Rapper Toomaj Salehi was arrested in late October. He’d called for protests and shared advice on protest tactics. On 27 November it was announced he’s being charged with a capital crime. Footage was released showing him blindfolded and expressing regret for his actions – although a family member said the person on video wasn’t him.

Numerous film and theatre industry workers, including actress Taraneh Alidoosti, have been arbitrarily detained, with some already handed long prison sentences. Alidoosti’s arrest was announced on the day her eight-million-plus-follower Instagram page vanished. In her last two posts she denounced a protester’s execution and shared a statement supporting the protest movement with a photo of herself without hijab.

On 16 October, professional climber Elnaz Rekabi committed a high-profile act of civil disobedience by competing without hijab at an international championship. When video of this drew international attention, Rekabi went missing for two days. She was held at Iran’s embassy in Seoul, South Korea. A post appeared on her Instagram page in which she apologised for ‘unintentionally’ not wearing the hijab. When she landed in Tehran, a crowd of supporters gathered to greet her, but she was whisked away by state security forces. She was later forced to recant in an interview on state media.

In November, the Iranian football team competing in the World Cup in Qatar refused to sing the national anthem and instead stood in silent protest. But they only did so once. After reported threats of retaliation against their families, they dutifully went through the ritual of singing the anthem for their two remaining games.

The criminal injustice system

The Iranian authorities have weaponised the criminal justice system against protesters, lawyers representing them and those calling for accountability for rights violations.

Among those targeted have been human rights activists, journalists, students, teachers and labour leaders. Doctors have also been criminalised since the Tehran Medical Council published a statement condemning state forces for occupying medical buildings to search for protesters and stop them seeking medical help.

Many of those arrested have faced serious charges, such as violating national security, and have been tried, convicted and sentenced without due process. Sham trials have been held in Islamic Revolutionary courts. In violation of the law, the authorities deny defendants access to a lawyer of their choice, forcing them either to defend themselves or pick a court-approved lawyer. Independent observers are denied access and confessions obtained through torture are used as evidence. These typically take the form of forced televised confessions.

As protests have continued the regime has doubled down: in November it started charging protesters with serious crimes that can carry the death penalty, while announcing that capital sentences would be carried out. The regime has form here: since the 1980s, it has extrajudicially executed tens of thousands of dissidents, protesters and political prisoners, some of them teenagers.

The theocracy perceives those questioning its authority as committing the worst possible crimes: moharebeh (‘enmity against God’ or ‘waging war on God’) and ‘corruption on earth’ – crimes so vague anyone could be accused of them. Dozens of protesters have been accused of these crimes and some have already received death sentences, including under baseless accusations of killing members of the Basij paramilitary force.

Executions started in early December. Mohsen Shekari was executed on 8 December, less than three weeks after being convicted and sentenced to death. Majidreza Rahnavard was hanged in public in Mashhad on 12 December, three weeks after his arrest. To add cruelty to injustice, the authorities let his mother visit him the day before he was killed, misleading her into believing he’d be released. In both cases, the usual televised confession was broadcast, with the defendants showing clear signs of torture.

By mid-December, at least 11 more men had been sentenced to death and 24 others, most in their 20s, faced charges that could carry the death penalty. Among those handed a death sentence is theatre actor Hossein Mohammadi, accused of killing a Basij member and convicted of ‘corruption on earth’. A professional footballer, Amir Nasr-Azadani, is accused of similar crimes simply for taking part in protests.

The two death sentences so far been carried out were meant to terrify people into submission. Should they fail to do so, many more executions are likely.

Children under fire

Children haven’t escaped repression. Decades of state indoctrination through the education system have clearly failed, as numerous children have expressed support for the protest movement. In response, they’ve been targeted for violence during protests, arrested and subjected to physical and psychological torture in custody and in schools. On 10 October, the Tehran-based Association for the Protection of Children reported that at least 28 children had been killed in protests, and many more had been interrogated and detained in so-called ‘psychological centres’. The next day, the education minister admitted that children had been sent to re-education camps.

There’s no violation of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iran is a state party, that hasn’t been committed in the attempt to suppress the protest movement. The government has also broken its own laws, including the 2020 Law for the Protection of Children and Young Adults, which prohibits all forms of violence against children.

On 27 November, UNICEF, the UN’s children agency, issued a statement calling for an end to the violence and abuse against Iranian children, including raids and searches in schools.

Soon after it was reported that at least three juveniles faced charges that could carry the death penalty, even though executing anyone for crimes committed under the age of 18 is banned by both international and domestic law. According to Iranian law, the Islamic Revolutionary Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over cases involving minors, and juvenile defendants must undergo psychological examination to determine their level of maturity.

From words to action

Ever since the protests took off, thousands of people around the world have showed their support and demanded their governments act. Some have: early on, the US government imposed sanctions on the morality police and seven senior leaders of the force and other security agencies. The German government summoned Iran’s ambassador to urge his government to stop the crackdown.

What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.


Human rights groups also called for UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) action, demanding a special session to establish an independent investigative, reporting and accountability mechanism, additional to the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, who has repeatedly highlighted the problem of impunity for rights violations.

As envisaged by civil society, the new mechanism should be mandated and adequately resourced to gather, preserve and share evidence of violations with national, regional and international courts and bodies that may have jurisdiction over crimes. Its public reporting should include analysis of patterns of crimes and violations and identification of perpetrators.

On 24 November civil society got what they asked for when the UNHRC adopted a resolution to establish an international independent fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations committed during the repression of the protests. The resolution was passed with 25 votes for, 16 abstentions and six votes against – Armenia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan and Venezuela.

Another global blow against the theocracy came on 14 December, when the UN Economic and Social Council voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, the main intergovernmental forum dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. This move was supported by Iranian women’s rights activists and a petition signed by over 114,000 people around the world.

Given the long-term agenda of the fact-finding mission, international civil society groups continue to demand urgent measures to stop the death penalty being used against protesters and urge democratic governments to downgrade their diplomatic ties with Iran, including by recalling ambassadors and summoning Iran’s diplomats to communicate disapproval. Campaigners are also calling for targeted economic sanctions to cut funding for the state’s machinery of repression.

Voices from the frontline

Sohrab Razaghi is executive director of Volunteer Activists, an independent civil society organisation based in the Netherlands dedicated to building capacity among Iranian activists and organisations, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East.


We can identify five possible scenarios – and only one of them leads to regime change.

In the first scenario, the crackdown succeeds and protests end. This would result in widespread hopelessness and disappointment.

In the second, the authorities make concessions and the mandatory hijab rules are repealed. This would lead to the recognition of some limited freedoms, but not to regime change.

In the third, neither the authorities nor the protesters prevail, leading to continuing violence and bloody conflict. Protesters go into an armed offensive and the situation escalates into a civil war-like situation.

In the fourth, military groups seize power and suppress both protesters and established authorities to pursue their own goals.

In the fifth scenario, mass mobilisation leads to regime change.

What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Sohrab. Read the full interview here.

Freedom on the horizon?

Iran’s theocratic regime has survived past protest waves. But this time it’s facing a bigger and more united and determined challenge than ever.

The regime seems bewildered by the leaderless, fearless movement standing up to it. Young protesters have good reason to be afraid, but they defy fear. They seem convinced they have more to lose if they stay home and accept the status quo than if they rise and fight against it. The movement’s leaderless and decentralised character makes it flexible, adaptable and more difficult to deactivate.

But success is far from guaranteed. The Iranian state remains a formidable force. It plays in the big leagues, taking sides in regional and international conflicts, mass-producing weapons, some of which are being used by Russia against Ukraine, and continues to develop its nuclear capacity. It’s proved itself willing to wage war on its own people.

As well as the continuing resolve of protesters, much will depend on whether the regime stays united, or whether tensions between hardliners and relative reformers, always present, grow bigger and lead to fracture. While the future is uncertain, one thing seems clear: the regime’s perennial rule over a subdued population can no longer be taken for granted.


  • States with diplomatic relations with Iran should recall their ambassadors, summon Iranian ambassadors to express their concerns about repression and impose targeted sanctions on perpetrators of human rights violations.
  • International human rights organisations should monitor and report on the situation of people in detention and press for their release and a moratorium on the death penalty.
  • International human rights and feminist organisations should continue to support mobilised Iranian women through advocacy, campaigning and funding, including by making it easier for human rights defenders at risk to access funding.

Cover photo by Dilara Senkaya/Reuters via Gallo Images